Understanding Distortion in Architectural Photography

You went ahead to click the super-straight and towering building positioned on the street from a distance, in a bid to capture its soaring height. Sadly, when you looked at the photo you got the shock of your life to see the tilted and falling on the road! Many of us travel and architecture photographers have been through this experience. It is due to a phenomenon called distortion. So don’t worry, it’s not your vision that’s distorted, it’s something else!

Concept of Distortion

You need not need a camera lens to get to know distortion. Remember your epic road trip and how you looked far out at the road ahead, only to see the straight road edges converge at a single point on the horizon? Was the road edges really meeting? Think architectural photography– just tilt your perspective 90º, and you get a similar phenomenon— vertical distortion.

All the blocks in the above architecture design are almost of the same scale. It is the distortion in the photograph that has caused them to create an illusion of varying scales.

The What

Distortion is a result of changing perspective, and properties of the lens. We know that objects that are closer appear to be much larger—remember that selfie with Eiffel tower where you seem to have overgrown the tower itself? Similarly, when you stand in front of a vertical building and try to get the entire high-rise in the frame, the base appears much larger compared to the top, and the building looks as if it’s falling back with the edge converging at the top. A case of converging verticals.

Types of Common Distortions

1. Optical distortion: This type of distortion is caused by the lens properties or limitations itself, and occur as lack of sharpness, vignettes, chromatic aberrations and curved lines.

2. Geometric distortion: This distortion affects the shape of the subject towards the edges of the frame. For example, a sphere in the centre appears round, whereas the same sphere when present near the edge, appears like an elliptical disk. This is commonly seen in interior photos.

3. Perspective distortion: This arises because of different scales of objects at varying distances from the lens. Often seen in outdoor architectural photographs such as streets or building exteriors.

4. Keystoning distortion: Caused by the viewpoint, this distortion leads to “converging lines”. For example, when shooting a tall building its edge appear “caved in” than “straight up”.

5. Alignment distortion: Occurs when the camera is not levelled horizontally with a reference line of the subject, making the subject appear skewed.

Working with distortion

Distortion may lead to unreal or outright weird images and hence you may want to do away with it most of the times. On the contrary, it can be also used to create surreal effects.

How to get rid of distortion:

1. Change your viewpoint: The best strategy is to minimize distortion in the field by trying to keep the plane of the camera and the subject aligned i.e. tilt the camera as little as possible. If your subject is at a height, find a high vantage point and shoot from there, parallel to the main subject.

2. Use a tilt-shift lens: If changing the viewpoint is not possible, opt for a perspective control lens or a tilt-shift lens. You will be able to keep your camera at your level while shifting your lens direction to align with all the points of the subject. This may take some practice to master and such lenses are often expensive.

3. Software correction: Lightroom, Photoshop, Perspective Pilot, Ptlens are some common software you can use for lens correction. iPhone too has a perspective correction app for mobile clicks. However, too much correction will lead to pixel loss.

Remember, the human eye is used to some degree of perspective because it’s the natural way we see. That’s why some images may look weird if you correct them completely!

How to use distortion to your advantage

Distortion can be used to make creative and out-of-the-league images that immediately catch the viewer’s eye! Have you seen the typical pics of people “holding” the Eiffel tower in their hands- as a photographer you can use distortion to create such special personalized moments for your clients! A fish-eye lens can give very interesting perspectives (albeit distorted ones!) of common architectural subjects, for example, a scrunched view of the Paris skyline, with the Eiffel Tower in a corner and twisted to give a funny frame!

Using distortions for special effects
© Ivan Lian

About the author:

Rhucha Kulkarni is an entrepreneur, a wildlife lover, a photographer, a traveller and a writer. She loves juggling different hats and currently leads jungLEADz, her wildlife travel venture.

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